India is reeling under the ferocious second wave of COVID-19. The World Health Organization, in its weekly report for the first week of May 2021, accounted India for over half of the coronavirus infections recorded globally, as well as a quarter of the deaths. This is amidst the accusations of large-scale ‘fudging’ of the actual numbers.
However, there is another fear that is looming. The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening global nutrition, especially in low-and middle-income countries. Safety measures such as physical distancing, transport restrictions, lockdowns which are implemented in response to COVID-19 have affected the production, distribution, and selling of healthy, fresh, and low-cost foods — thus, causing millions of families to rely on nutrient-poor options. There is a well-established concern now that the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to increase the risk of all forms of malnutrition.
COVID Fallout: Rise in ‘Stunting’, Anaemia, ‘Wasting’ Among Children
According to UNICEF's Status of the World's Children Report 2019, malnutrition is responsible for 69 percent of deaths among kids under the age of five in India, and every second child under the age of five suffers from some form of malnutrition. The impact of the pandemic is already there to see. India is seeing mass poverty for the first time in the last 45 years. Data from the first phase of the 2019-20 National Family Health Survey is available now, and indicates that incidences of malnutrition have increased among Indian children.
Out of the 22 states and Union Territories that have been surveyed, there has been an increase in ‘stunting’ (low weight for age) in 12; in 13 of these places there is an increase in ‘wasting’ (low weight for height); and 16 are seeing an increase in underweight children.
There is also a rise in the number of anaemic children. In most states and Union Territories, childhood malnutrition is on the rise. Even in comparatively wealthy states like Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, and Himachal Pradesh, the rate of stunting has increased in the last five years.
This is disappointing because over the past decades, the country has made some, although sluggish, strides in reducing mother and child malnutrition.
This deterioration can be linked to the overall economic downturn which has pushed the unemployment rate to a 45-year high. Budget cuts to nutrition-sensitive schemes like the Public Distribution System and Mid-Day Meal, which feed a large percentage of the population, have aggravated the situation.
Rise in Child Mortality Amid COVID
Malnutrition was on the rise well before the pandemic hit. It is only going to worsen now. A Yale University study, that tracked a group of about 5,000 migrants who returned to their villages in central and northern India following the nationwide lockdown in March 2020, reports that more than 40 percent of those who remained at home after the lockdown were worried about running out of food after the harvest season. Over 20 percent said they were consuming less than normal. The loss and impediment of other health programmes during lockdowns have jeopardised maternal and infant health and mortality even more.
UNICEF recently reported that child mortality rose by 15.4 percent in India due to direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19.
The profound influence of the COVID-19 pandemic on early childhood feeding could have intergenerational implications for child growth and development, as well as life-long effects on schooling, chronic disease risks, and overall human resource formation if appropriate actions are not taken. The economic stress has also led to higher incidences of food insecurity.
How to Prevent Exclusion & Strengthen Public Distribution System
In this scenario, it is important to provide food aid to vulnerable groups till the situation improves. The government must provide economic stability in the form of monthly conditional cash transfer to marginalised communities to prevent their financial collapse, and to enable them to continue providing basics such as schooling, health, and nutrition to their wards. The disruptions of the mid-day meal scheme and routine healthcare could have life-long impacts on mothers and children, particularly if the current conditions continue for an extended period of time. To tackle this, institutions such as anganwadis need to be revitalised and repurposed.
All said and done, such measures can only work when we remove the element of ‘exclusion’ from the schemes. Migration, bureaucracy and paperwork create exclusion at different levels.
The second wave is yet to be over and the fear of the third wave is already looming large. We may win the battle against coronavirus, but time is running out to save millions who are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and malnutrition that is slated to worse by the time the pandemic abates.
(The author is a PhD student in Science, Technology and Society Studies at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, JNU, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)